One Tough (Virtual) Agent

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Customer Service
Customer Service

The latest success story in virtual agent customer self-service does not sell books or handbags. It promotes the life of a soldier. In August 2006 the U.S. Army rolled out SGT STAR, an online recruiting and self-service chat tool. Today the virtual agent speaks to 500 visitors per day and gives the Army a personable online presence on a 24/7 basis.

Previous real-time online recruiting efforts focused a great deal on chat rooms, but those weren't used to their full potential. "We noticed that visitors were asking the same core group of questions about 60 percent of the time," says Paula Spilman, IT project manager in the U.S. Army Accessions Command, which operates SGT STAR. Furthermore, the hours of operation for the chat rooms were necessarily limited by recruiter availability, and were a comparatively costly solution when so many questions were predictable and routine.

Simply leaving visitors to their own devices with page after page of FAQ was no solution, however. "Goarmy.com is a very large site, with about 15,000 pages of content, and that can be a little overwhelming," Spilman says. So after a focus group test and a nine-month design process, SGT STAR went online to act as the new face and voice of the Army's online recruiting efforts, fielding questions about everything from boot camp life to "his" personal life.

SGT STAR wasn't an overnight success-virtual agents typically have to "learn" and have their knowledge base adjusted and expanded over the first few months, and it was no exception. "Initially, recruits asked all these questions we didn't have answers to, [for example,] things like showering in basic training," says Patrick Ream, vice president of marketing at Next IT, which provides the technology platform for SGT STAR. "So we talked again to top recruiters and people in the field to answer those questions." Now, when SGT STAR is stumped, the question is sent to a group of recruiting specialists (and the answer is later added to the knowledge base), and if a chat room recruiting representative is online, the visitor is offered a connection via live chat.

According to the Army and Next IT, SGT STAR now provides an accurate response to more than 90 percent of all inquiries. Because military recruiting has a lengthy pipeline (and SGT STAR does not itself ask recruits to sign on the dotted line), there are no specific figures on how the technology has affected commitment rates. However, statistics on the Army Web site show that SGT STAR sessions are roughly four times as long as the average site visit, and that stickiness is considered good for the recruiting business. "SGT STAR was not designed to replace recruiters-the youth still want to talk to a recruiter eventually," Spilman says. "But if we have people coming online, finding information, and going to a recruiting station armed with that knowledge, they will be happier with their decision in the long term, and hopefully stay in the Army and make it a career."

EXPERT OPINION
EXPERT OPINION